London welcomes millions of visitors from all over the world every year, primarily because there's so much to see and do in the British city. Planning a trip to London can be daunting, especially if you have limited time, but there are a few attractions and activities that should be at the top of everyone's list. From museums like the British Museum and the Tate Modern to historic sites like Big Ben and Kensington Palace, London is filled with immersive, exciting attractions, many of which are free to visitors. Here are 20 of the best things to do in London
See Big Ben
Big Ben is a great first stop on any London itinerary. Located in Parliament Square, Big Ben (which is the name of the bell, not the tower) is an iconic sight in the London skyline and one not to be missed by visitors. For the best view, head across Westminster Bridge, where Big Ben and the House of Parliament stand over the Thames. While you can't enter or ascend the tower, you can listen to it chime the hour, which it's been doing since 1859. From Big Ben, it's a quick walk to Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and the London Eye.
Tour Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge, which spans the Thames from the City of London to Southwark (and shouldn't be confused with London Bridge), offers tours to the public to discover the bridge's history and functions. The tours required a paid ticket (book in advance online) and showcase the Victorian Engine Rooms, where the steam engines once powered the bridge lifts. You can also traverse the high-level glass walkways, which offer great views of London. Tower Bridge is open daily, except for Dec. 24 through 26.
Peruse the Tate Modern
The Tate Modern has been London's number one tourist attraction for several years running, drawing in thousands of visitors who are interested in the museum's modern and contemporary art. The museum, which got an addition in 2016, houses several permanent exhibitions, as well as rotating special exhibits and installations. There is a 360-degree public viewing balcony on the 10th floor of the Switch House, which offers impressive views of London from all sides. The museum is free to visitors, although some exhibitions may require a paid ticket. From the Tate Modern, explore Borough Market or take the Thames Clipper across the river to the Tate Britain.
Explore Kensington Palace
Peek inside the royal residence of Kensington Palace, the current home to Prince William and Kate Middleton, which features both permanent exhibitions and temporary exhibits. Explore Queen Victoria's childhood rooms, see the art in the King's Gallery and marvel at the King's State Apartments, all of which are included in the price of admission. Don't miss the Sunken Garden and the Kensington Palace Pavilion, which offers afternoon tea, as well as other snacks and drinks. It's recommend to book tickets well in advance online, especially when visiting on a weekend or holiday.
Dine at Borough Market
Borough Market, a massive covered outdoor market in London's South Bank, has been around since 1756, selling produce, baked goods, and ready-to-eat meals. Today it's opened daily except on Sundays and welcomes visitors to peruse the stalls or grab lunch from one of the regular vendors. The market is also home to dozens of permanent (and trendy) restaurants, including Padella, Bao Borough, and Hawksmoor. Many of the eateries will require a booking or standing in a long line (get there extra early if you want to try Padella's hand-made pasta), but there's always somewhere to grab a tasty snack or meal. Look for Borough Olives, Bread Ahead Bakery, and Pieminister, which are a few of the market's best stalls.
Watch the Changing of the Guard
Experience traditional British pageantry at the changing of the guard, which takes place at Buckingham Palace when the new guard replaces the old guard. Crowds gather to watch the ceremony, which lasts about 45 minutes, at 10:45 a.m., and there are various places for viewing around the palace and St. James. It's free, but visitors should arrive early to grab a good spot. The changing of the guard typically occurs daily, but the ceremony doesn't take place every day, so it's best to check the schedule online when planning your London itinerary. Windsor Palace also hosts a daily changing of the guard, which is available to visitors with a ticket.
Ride the London Eye
The London Eye is Europe's tallest cantilevered observation wheel, offering fantastic views of the city and the Thames. It moves slowly, so it's less of a ride and more of a viewing experience, and it's a great way to get a sense of London's scope. Book a ticket and time slot online ahead of visiting to keep things simple and consider upgrading to a Fast Track ticket to skip the lines, which can be quite long. Tickets to the Eye can also be combined with other nearby attractions, including the London Dungeon, Madame Tussauds, Shrek's Adventure!, and SEA LIFE London.
See a West End Play
London's West End is filled with historic theaters, all of which house high-end productions of musicals and plays (it's essentially the city's version of Broadway). Some of the theaters have had the same production for years ("Mamma Mia!" is a constant in the West End), while others bring in new plays throughout the year. "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," which is told in two parts, is a favorite among visitors, as is "The Lion King." But some of the best experiences come from the short-lived productions, which often feature celebrities in the cast. It's best to book in advance, especially with famous plays, but many of the theaters also offer same-day rush tickets. There is also a TKTS booth in Leicester Square, which sells discounted and late minute tickets to many of the big West End shows.
Have Afternoon Tea
Afternoon tea is a grand British tradition involving tiny sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, and, of course, a pot of tea. Many of London's high-end hotels offer excellent afternoon tea services, including The Savoy, The Ritz, and Claridges. Still, you can also find afternoon tea at a more budget price throughout the city. One of the best in town can be found at Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly. The posh department store, which is known for its tea, serves afternoon tea in their Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon. Book in advance and be prepared to eat a lot of scones and cakes (which you can also pack up to take home when you're full). Fortnum & Mason, like many of the best afternoon tea establishments, caters to those with dietary restrictions and offers a special children's menu.
Visit the Harry Potter Studio Tour
Head north to Leavesden to the Warner Bros movie studio, where the Harry Potter Studio Tour offers an immersive, engaging experience for fans and casual viewers alike. The studio tour, which must be booked several months in advance, takes you through the sets, props and behind the scenes details of the Harry Potter films, including into the Forbidden Forest, inside Gringotts and through Hogwarts. Allocate two to three hours for the tour, plus some extra time to drink a Butterbeer in the cafe and scour the gift shop for the right wand. The tour often features special events around holidays, like Hogwarts in the Snow during the winter. Accessing the studio is easy from central London, either via train from Euston or by bus.
Tour Kew Gardens
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (which is also known as Kew Gardens), features a vast expanse of flora, fauna, and art installations. The Gardens, located near Richmond, include over 50,000 living plants, with everything from lush greenhouses to a bamboo garden to a treetop walkway that takes you up into the leaves. It's tough to see everything in one day, so plan ahead and do some research on what you want to see (don't miss The Hive, an installation about bees). Tickets can be booked ahead online or bought at the door, and there are often special activities on for kids and families. While there are restaurants and cafes within the gardens, it's best to plan a meal in the local area, either in Kew or nearby Richmond, which is easily accessible by bus.
Snap a Photo at Abbey Road
The Beatles famously recorded their album "Abbey Road" at Abbey Road Studios in St. John's Wood. While you can't enter the studios unless you're an actual musician being paid to record there, visitors can grab a photo on the iconic crosswalk and peruse the Abbey Road Shop, which sells Beatles-themed souvenirs. The crosswalk can be tricky as it's on a busy road and is often filled with tourists, so aim to get your photo as early in the morning as possible. While you're in the area, stroll down to 34 Montagu Square in Marylebone to seek out John Lennon's former home, which can be spotted thanks to the blue plaque outside.
Explore Portobello Road
Notting Hill's colorful Portobello Road is well-known from movies like "Notting Hill" and "Love, Actually." The picturesque neighborhood is home to numerous restaurants, bars, and shops, as well as Portobello Road Market, which sells antiques and goods. It's an excellent place for a stroll and some shopping, but Portobello Road is also a good spot to grab a bite to eat. Look for Electric Diner, Eggslut (an import from L.A.), and The Distillery, which makes its own gin. Movie fans can find Hugh Grant's infamous blue door at 282 Westbourne Park Road, just off Portobello, as well as Alice's, the antique market from "Paddington."
Ascend Sky Garden
Book a free timed ticket online to access Sky Garden, an indoor garden, and viewing gallery on the 35th floor of 20 Fenchurch Street in the City of London. While many viewing galleries around London charge a fee to access, Sky Garden is a budget-friendly option for families, couples, and groups. There are several restaurants and cafes inside, as well as places to sit and relax. It spans 360 degrees and features an outdoor viewing balcony that overlooks the river. Booking opens online weekly three weeks in advance, and it's essential to snag a ticket before showing up (although Sky Garden does allow walk-up visitors at certain times of day). From there, take a walk to the Tower of London, which is an excellent add-on to a visit to Sky Garden.
Drink in an Old Pub
Many, many pubs in England claim to be the oldest, and London has several old boozers that date back hundreds of years. These can be grungy places, but it's worth the experience of downing a pint in a historic pub. Some of London's famous spots include the Prospect of Whitby, Ye Olde Mitre, and the Lamb & Flag, or you can opt for something more unusual like The Mayflower Pub, which looks over the Thames. Note that children under 18 are allowed in pubs when dining with adults, so it's best to leave them with a sitter if you're planning to go on a pub crawl around town.
Stroll Through the British Museum
The British Museum houses millions of artifacts and art pieces from around the world, including the Rosetta Stone, a collection of Egyptian mummies and items from ancient Troy. It's open daily and free for visitors, so you can either pop in or plan to spend several hours exploring the collections. There are often special exhibitions, which usually require a paid ticket, and the museum caters to families as well as adults. Stop by on Fridays when the museum is open until 8:30 p.m. with events, food, and drink.
Shop Around Oxford Circus
Oxford Circus, the intersection of Regent Street and Oxford Street, is the center of London's shopping district. The area surrounding is filled with department stores like Selfridges and John Lewis, as well as chain and boutique shops. The designer spots can be found near Bond Street, while Oxford Circus itself is home to massive H&M and Nike stores. It can be slightly overwhelming, especially when there are crowds, but it's the best place to shop in London. Avoid weekend afternoons and evenings when the sidewalks become stuffed with people. Look for iconic shops like Liberty and Hamleys Toy Store, both of which are great for gifts and souvenirs.
Walk Through Hyde Park
London is a city of many parks and green spaces, but Hyde Park is an essential visit when exploring the British capital. The park is located in the center of town, adjacent to Mayfair on the east and Kensington on the west. It connects to Kensington Gardens and Kensington Palace and includes The Serpentine, the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, and the picturesque Italian Gardens. During the summer, Hyde Park welcomes British Summer Time, a series of events and concerts that include both free and ticketed activities. The Serpentine is also a popular spot to rent paddle boats during the warmer months, and the Serpentine Sackler Gallery houses contemporary art exhibitions throughout the year. While the park is filled with things to do, one of the best experiences is to wander through its paths. Start at Hyde Park Corner or Marble Arch and see where it takes you.
Visit the Greenwich Royal Observatory
Located in Greenwich Park, the Greenwich Royal Observatory is known as the home of the Prime Meridian line and Greenwich Mean Time. It also features exhibitions, a planetarium, and a massive telescope. The observatory often puts on events, lectures, and films, and it's part of Royal Museums Greenwich, which also includes the National Maritime Museum, the Cutty Sark, and the Queen's House. Purchase a ticket that includes several of the museums to make a day of it (the Cutty Sark, a historic ship, is particularly worth a visit).
Climb Primrose Hill
Primrose Hill is a beautiful park, located just north of Regent's Park and adjacent to Camden and St. John's Wood. It's smaller than many of London's other parks, but the view from the top of the hill is unforgettable. It's not a tough ascent, although you may want solid shoes if it's been raining, and locals often sit on the park's peak to view the sunset. It's also a popular spot to ring in the New Year since the London fireworks are visible from that height. The nearby Regent's Park Road is filled with shops, cafes, and restaurants for a treat after your climb.